I’m sorry for the TL;DR length of this. I guess I rambled a lot. And secondly, I apologise for the quality, which might be the result of a late 5 hour rush through this. It has been a very good year.
All of these are lovely Sputnik 4.5s, I would say. Unless they’re 5s. Enjoy!
Dananananaykroyd– There Is a Way
When I saw these guys play their last show in Leeds (ever!) on their last tour of the universe as we know it, I sort of felt like I was hitching a ride. Everyone else seemed so clued in on these guys, so it was like the outside of post-hardcore’s very own in-joke, one that only makes sense when you see how joyous an experience they are. There’s the hair ruffling—which I was on the receiving end of—and the wall of death that converts death into hugs. Most will tell you that prior knowledge of their albums is pointless, and it kind of was that way: I could pick up every chant of “da na na na!” as it bounced from fan to fan. It was the gig first for this band, but going back to There Is a Way felt wholly satisfying to me- I was able to see where one ridiculous song ended and where the next began. The two best—“Think and Feel” followed by the stomping “Muscle Memory”— sum up how much I’ll miss this band when they’re gone. They have their moments, and those moments are big. Best break-up ever.
Eprhyme – Dopestylevsky
Jewish hip-hop that’s morally conscious. It’s a great album, irresistible in places because of how much debt it stores in hip-hop clichés: lines like “minimize waste / MC say somethin!” contrast so brilliantly Eprhyme’s dorky love of his favourite genre with his religious (and environmentally aware) self. It’s kind of cool to hear. It might not be even remotely cool to talk about. But it’s kind of cool to hear.
Alvarius B. – Baroque Primitiva
I can trust in someone from Sun City Girls to eternally make a record that does nothing more than fuck around, and this one contains the only cover of “God Only Knows” that you won’t compliment for its “Beach Boys’ melodies“.
I don’t know why James Blake didn’t make this an EP, because they’re clearly his speciality. This has a phenomenal first side, as good a run as anything I’ve listened to this year. The second side still feels like an experiment I can’t get my head around, with more of a focus on the dubstep and piano music as separate genres compared to the beautiful combination of the two on the first side. Seeing him perform made me understand a few things about the dubstep, though.
Wilco – The Whole Love
My kneejerk reaction was that this was horrible, because “Art of Almost” felt like a pretty cheeky statement: another opener that put everything on the line (and didn’t do it convincingly enough, to my mind), followed by another cheap single. Of course, it’s no statement at all. The real statement is “One Sunday Morning,” which to me feels more heartfelt than the last three Wilco records combined. Not that those records weren’t good fun, but it’s good to see the phase in which Wilco celebrate being Wilco is over. This record, instead, has the band firing in every direction Tweedy sees fit, and I simply can’t get over the absolutely perfect way it ends. “One Sunday Morning” wisps away its pain as easily as the most painful Wilco tracks, and lays its profound lyrics as carelessly as “Jesus, Etc.” It might be the best song he’s ever written, and the album itself strikes the excellent balance between the Wilco we thought essential and the Wilco who thought it essential to relax.
Beyoncé – 4
The slow jams that start off this record are my favourite songs Beyoncé has put to record ever. It used to be “Irreplaceable,” because who doesn’t love a feisty, self-sufficient Beyoncé song? But “I Care” is so heartfelt and, yeah, slow that it drains all that pumping-up of all its worth. Regardless, you’ll be ready for “Irreplaceable” by the time this record is over, and you basically get it.
Vivian Girls – Share the Joy
I was literally blown away by the principles Vivian Girls put forward with “I Heard You Say,” because the song came first, and the noise? It didn’t. Of course, if what Vivian Girls were coating over with their guitars was bad lyrics, I can understand: Share The Joy doesn’t make insight its goal in the way I thought it was going to, but it remains one of those records I appreciatively played to its death. That single is powerful, jangly guitar pop, and the feisty songs that open and close the record are two of the most evocative achievements for the band to date: “The Other Girls” like some breezy Best Coast song turned into a full-blown jam, the other wholly, sincerely desperate. And both are six minute songs. I consider this record a brilliant change from a very nifty band.
The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts
I’ve stored a lot of faith in this album since January. In a year with my favourite mixtape bands absent- no Yo La Tengo and no Broken Social Scene- Rolling Blackouts is something I return to for a mindless hit of everything. People always describe this band ungenerously with words like “hyper off meth” and so forth (check Metacritic, I’m fairly sure I didn’t make that up), but there’s something charming about doing so much and doing it all with the same frantic momentum: the summery “Buy Nothing Day,” which puts Bethany Costentino to work so well, is as lightning paced as any other track, but they can be hip-hop, doo-wop or marching band. This puts a big smile on my face.
Radiohead – The King of Limbs
I’ve listened to “Give Up The Ghost” about a thousand times by now. There’s no Radiohead song I’ve been as unhealthily dependent on as this one, and there certainly aren’t enough Youtube videos in the world to teach me every inch of its conception. Yorke’s performance of it at the Big Chill might have been as close as I got, though. The way he uses the microphones! His voice ten times! This should just be another Radiohead song I can praise for its “aspects” and so forth, in the same way I’d be impressed by my best friend playing “Everything In Its Right Place” on piano because that song is so ‘out there’. But “Give Up The Ghost” sums up why The King of Limbs was such an essential Radiohead release for me: for all of the fucking around this band gets to do, to be “different,” it never got this touching. It’s the stuff of “Seperator,” too, that’s not just us watching Yorke descend into an absorbing love of electronic music. He’s taking us there with him. Well, me. I know you all hate this album.
Amon Tobin – ISAM
This album is cool and weird and always does the interesting thing it says it’s going to do (“Surge”). I want to own the record but I’m worried people will give me weird glances when I spin it.
Feist – Metals
My experience with Feist is minimal unless you’re counting a cliché indie kid’s attachment to Broken Social Scene and “1234,” so the doting I’ve done over Metals might be due to a fresh pair of eyes. Still, it doesn’t matter when everything here satisfies what I love from a singer-songwriter album, including my favourite of all things, a bit of grit to go with it. Which is why “How Come You Never Go There” is one of my favourite songs of the year
EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
“Coda” is one of the most powerful songs of the year. It’s arranged- as is “Marked,” as is “The Grey Ship,” and you get the point- to be as neat as it is sloppy. I understand EMA making complaints about being called an “unsettling” female singer-songwriter, because as always, such a description is just for everyone’s lack of a better word. But I was under the impression Past Life Martyred Saints was intending to unsettle. It seeks to leave the mark she speaks about, and as the voice scratches up against you as it sings “I wish every time he touched me left a mark” you can’t help but feel a little terrified. But there’s beauty and stuff! Now that’s journalism.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I always take to these kinds of records, and Fleet Foxes execute it in much the same way they did with their self-titled: it’s one of those folk records that benefits from sounding adorably dated, and Fleet Foxes are more professionals than folk musicians, so they know how to make that album time and again. This time, though, it’s easier to accept them as this fully-fledged band, because there are kinks in their lyrics. This is a more reflective record than Fleet Foxes, with “Motzezuma” worried about getting old and “Lorelai” unveiling a much more bitter Robin Pecknold to the world. It’s a more interesting record for that, I think, and might be considered their real masterpiece when we look back on these two albums.
Recommendation of the year goes to the well-loved Conrad for this one. I love the way Diamonite combines music with vocals. There’s a bit of St. Vincent in here, but on her debut album it was the vocals that made the mischief while the piano music sounded (what other people would call) typical. That album is my favourite album of all time, so I thank Bell for making a finely polished version of it, with “Charlie” a fleshed-out debut song, with the synthesizers as manipulative in their sound as Bell’s chanting. Diamonite is basically very experimental but very well contained, which is impressive considering it’s the first we’ve heard from her.
Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place
My obsession with The Magic Place coincided pretty heavily with a parallel obsession with the Grateful Dead, whose American Beauty I had discovered for the first time this year. Both albums have this very strange link in my mind now. It’s not like Julianna Barwick goes jamming on this album or writes sweet Americana ditties in her spare time, and the Grateful Dead have been known to drone on, but not in the way Barwick does so constructively. Still, The Magic Place has some weird hippy vibe to it for me now. I’m very tempted to go all Zaireeka on these two and see if “Box of Rain” and “White Flag” would make a good mash-up. In my mind, they certainly would.
Times New Viking – Dancer Equired
To anyone who has a past with Times New Viking, my, is this dull. It’s more snippets of songs, more “fuzz” although, as is the new trend, a little less of it, just a whiff of production. As a first-timer, Dancer Equired sounds to me like a new record from a band stuck out with the old, but they could easily be mistaken for veterans; hell, they know how to write a late Guided by Voices record better than Robert Pollard does. It’s an Alien Lanes with keyboards. It’s Beat Happening with higher-pitched vocalists. So says “Don’t Go To Liverpool”: it’s indie rock, so of course you have a past with it.
The Dodos – No Color
For me, this album is very much a case of Halcyon Digest syndrome: it converts a band you like into an absolute favourite. No Color is, to draw another parallel, a concise adaptation of the band the Dodos used to be, less ambitious but more vibrant, even if it doesn’t believe so itself. The band sound no different to how they did in style on Visiter, sure, but they sound thrilling here, and the claustrophobia does them a world of good. As Lord Rudy Klapper of Buckinghamshire once said, “like Visiter but with an editor.”
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
I love her!
Braids – Native Speaker
The Animal Collective comparisons? They’re fine, if it’s praise you’re looking for. Honestly, this album reminds me of hearing that one crystallising moment of Panda Bear’s on “Daily Routine,” the plea (more like lazy wave of the hand) for just a second more in his bed. Native Speaker twinlkes as if in that moment, and just as knowingly patient. Braids aren’t ready, on their title track, to spill onto the sides- not until the way they manipulate “fucked up,” that phrase you’ve heard so many times it’s lost all meaning- into something striking again. Native Speaker, much like its sister album from last year’s Blue Hawaii, is painful content wrapped in fresh and purdy scenery. You’ll forget how to feel when you listen to it.
The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
This record rightly gave the War on Drugs a minor breakout, but for me it was what I was obsessing over all year- even more before its conception- much in the same way that last year’s Perch Patchwork was pre-destined to be my “AOTY” before it had even been named. I think now that I was just impatient; I remember a comment from the Times’ Culture section over here in England writing that “when Granduciel writes an album for three years, this is how it sounds.” I understand that now. Slave Ambient is mature but still by the curious band that wanders and drifts and does all that “Come To The City” says. It’s patient too, but only for a little while, and then “Baby Missiles” hits. Slave Ambient kind of makes me wonder why I was so excited for this band when I didn’t know they could do all of this, but beyond their earnest growth as songwriters, I can still see the things that have made these journeymen the band they are.
Also, Bob Dylan.
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
I guess what Will Sheff meant when he said he wanted to make the music he was interested in making was that he wanted to be a more confusing version of himself. I Am Very Far, to me, is four words he hasn’t really figured out for himself, and for the supposed literary rock star and analyst he is, that’s pretty damn fascinating. None of these lyrics make much sense, but they seem justifiably cryptic when their source throws a filing cabinet across the recording studio. My favourite band continues to be my favourite band on this record, but it takes a lot of working out. Forty guitars on one song? This is a far way from the one-man-band with a creepy folk song, but it doesn’t make it one bit less devastating.
Andrew Jackson Jihad – Knife Man
Knife Man is the most quotable thing in my life since every episode of The Simpsons. As such, I’m fairly sure there’s no point in me describing it. I don’t describe myself making pop culture references, do I?
G-Side – The One… COHESIVE
I’ve never been so immediately bowled over by a hip-hop album as I have this one. For all G-Side’s talk of being businessmen first on Cohesive, it is the music that speaks. It’s the violins backing their words on “Came Up” that swell. It’s the faultless construction of “How Far” that makes it the single of the year if it even was one. As if more than twenty thousand people knew the name G-Side before the year began; if this album was meant as mere proof that G-Side can make their living at the gas station and create music at the same time, its intentions fail. G-Side can quit their jobs and become the guys they boast to be on Cohesive. The songs will back them up.
Or hooks. Whatever. What do I know about hip-hop?
TV On The Radio – Nine Types of Light
For a while I was kind of tempted to make a list called something like “things that have emotionally devastated me this year,” but obviously that wouldn’t be related to music so I can’t do it. The shortlist, though, is seeing the first two seasons of Veronica Mars, watching Thom Yorke give the aforementioned performance of “Give Up the Ghost,” finally reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower (this is where the list gets teenage hipster, obviously) and, lo and behold, seeing the music video for “You.”
I surprised myself by how shocked I was by “You,” actually. Before now, TV On The Radio have never made anything, I think, that could bring me to tears. Not that I can prove that, but it’s usually more reflective than visceral for this band, so even in their saddest moments, such as “Tonight,” it’s a thought process. But in this music video, picturing Tunde playing hero-worship to Prince, they hit so hard by making one of their very own members cry his heart out. I like the thought that what it took this band (a personal favourite forever and always) to make their masterpiece was their own emotional devastation. Listen to “Keep Your Heart” and Kyp and Tunde wail until no words come out. Nine Types of Light makes my shortlist, too.
Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island
I love Diaper Island, even when it’s so obvious that it’s trying to be ugly and it probably hates me back. This is a close companion to Public Strain, after all. Or rather, these are Public Strain b-sides, drawn straight from its producer’s computer. Of course they are. This is exactly how Women would release b-sides; the songs are less abstracted than the album they ended up releasing, full of tuneless guitar riffs and lyrics you’d have to say “pardon?” to five times before they gave up on you. It’s still obstructions first, and a song later.
You might not believe it, but it’s a different route for Chad VanGaalen, who used to get his power from his voice. That was before he met these ruffians. What’s different between “Sara” and the gorgeous “Willow Tree” is that one hides away from its existential funk and the other only ends it when the tears damage the banjo. And, naturally, the former is more interesting. VanGaalen is more of a songwriter on this album than ever, creating an ambiguous album with a miserable tone, refusing to engage in any of his old tricks for fear of missing the point. This is why his strumming on “Wandering Sounds” makes us go searching for something with more open-endedness, only for us to feel cheated with our two seconds of electronic beats that sound willing to explode. They don’t. It’s just more guitar. More riffs, extending forever. And though I loved it, I couldn’t explain why that worked so well for Public Strain, or why it crept up on me so madly. I blamed the snow for that. What can I blame on this record?
Maybe it’s the little gasp of air. This record just, only just, has actual songs behind its obstructions, “Heavy Stones” speaking vaguely, but directly: “lately, you’ve been some other thing.” At the end of the day, VanGaalen doesn’t try to make sense of Diaper Island. He just hopes the message gets through some way. The sexual transformation on “Shave My Pussy” is a senseless joke, but it’s a deeply felt one. I guess, in a way, Diaper Island goes full circle and helps me understand why I like Public Strain, why “noise rock” and “shoegaze” and “fuzz” all exist in harmony even if us snobs want to distinguish Unwound from Wavves. It’s the tone that Diaper Island nails, that impossible, supposedly “gross” sound that I fully understand but could never explain. Obstructions first, and a song later. That really means Chad VanGaalen is an emotional bastard this year. That’s the tone.